Learning From Afar

Using virtual education, Indian students can update skills and even earn degrees from American institutions, without even leaving their country.

In a world shaken by disease and disruption, many students in India are pursuing their education at U.S. institutions in a new way: via computers, tablets and smartphones.

Online degree programs, in topics ranging from fine arts to hard sciences, are becoming increasingly popular among international students everywhere. To see if digital learning is right for you or get a head start on your virtual education journey, here are insights from experts at Oregon State University (OSU) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)—renowned U.S. institutions that offer extensive online degree opportunities, ranging from humanities and business to engineering and computer science.  

Rich and varied experience
It’s easy to imagine online learning as just watching a bunch of boring lecture videos. But for institutions like OSU and Georgia Tech, that’s far from reality. 

OSU’s online programs are built on diverse forms of content as well as constant collaborations with instructors and other students. “Common tools in online courses include discussion forums, quizzes and exams, assignments, video content, readings, projects and group projects,” says Shannon Riggs, executive director of academic programs and learning innovation at OSU Ecampus. “In addition to video content, many Ecampus courses feature robust multimedia elements, such as animations, simulations and interactive tutorials.”

At Georgia Tech, pre-recorded course content is typically produced in cutting-edge production studios after months of research, design and planning, says Nisha Botchwey, associate dean of academic programs for Georgia Tech Professional Education. Programs also include real-time teaching assistant sessions scheduled to accommodate as many time zones as possible, vibrant discussion forums, augmented reality and more.

Though online learning may seem like a new phenomenon, institutions like OSU have been developing and delivering richly varied online courses since the 1990s, says Casey Glick, director of international marketing and recruitment for INTO OSU, which helps create specialist programs designed specifically for international students. 

“Each professor is brought into our Ecampus studios and works with our team of instructional designers and multimedia developers to develop an engaging, interactive and technologically enhanced course experience,” he says. “We have online laboratory classes, classes where students conduct research, experiential learning opportunities that can take place in their communities, and the ability to bring in high-level professionals from our industry connections into structured seminars.” 

Powerful learning
Some may think of online degree programs as shadows of the in-person experience. In reality, OSU Ecampus students and alumni report that online courses are often more engaging than their traditional classroom counterparts, says Glick.

Yakut Gazi, associate dean of learning systems at Georgia Tech Professional Education, describes online learning as “the most student-centric approach to education. It puts student learning objectives and experience at the center, and everything else is built around these. When done right, online learning produces equal, if not higher, learning outcomes. There have been several large meta-analyses studies that show this.”

The word “online” refers to the mode of delivery, and does not appear on graduates’ documents or transcripts, says Botchwey. “Graduates of our online master’s degrees receive the same diplomas as graduates of our traditional on-campus master’s degrees,” she says. “The online master’s degrees have the same content and rigor as the on-campus degree counterparts, and are taught by the same esteemed faculty experts.”

Engage for success
“As with U.S. universities in general, the more you put in, engage and get involved, the more you get out of the online experience,” says Glick. “Engagement means communicating with your professors. Take advantage of virtual office hours and get to know the programs or the research they are working on.”

Botchwey adds that course videos need to be actively studied, not just watched like television. “You need to take notes just as you would in an in-person class,” she says. “Take advantage of tools, such as pause and rewind, to make sure you understand the material covered.” 

Another key to attaining success while pursuing an online degree is asking for help, especially if faculty or students use colloquial language or references to campus or traditions that international students don’t understand. This will “provide a good learning opportunity for everyone involved,” says Botchwey. 

And even though students won’t have the benefit of hanging out with classmates in person, engaging with them is still vital. “Take advantage of message boards and other interactive tools to communicate with other students in the program,” advises Botchwey. “You are part of a worldwide cohort of motivated professionals, so take this opportunity to make professional connections.”

Flexibility and diligence
“Online education is a great option because it meets students where they are in their life,” says Glick. But that flexibility cannot be treated lightly. 

Botchwey says that students should expect a high-paced, busy schedule for the duration of the online program. Good organization, meticulous preparation and planning ahead—with project deadlines and exams clearly marked on students’ calendars—are key to online learning success. “It’s hard for students to catch up once they fall behind,” she adds.

Bethany Ulman, OSU Ecampus student success coach, elaborates. “Time is usually the biggest challenge for students who learn online,” she says. “Online students typically have competing demands for their time from family, work, community obligations and school. Finding a balance and feeling comfortable prioritizing different aspects are usually where students struggle.”

Building global communities
Experts agree that studying online does not mean being alone.  “Our students create robust and vibrant communities, where they help and support each other,” says Gazi. “These communities are diverse and increase the sense of belonging.”

Online students also become valued members of the overall university communities. “Ecampus students are Oregon State students,” says Glick, “and it is a growing population. We have graduates doing amazing things all across India and the world. And, being a graduate of OSU can open a lot of doors. They are part of a global network of classmates, who interact through online discussion forums, video conferencing software and in virtual communities.”

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.